Life's a beach in Jacksonville, but it's also much more

Jacksonville Beach, the largest of the three within the city limits, features a 1,300-foot pier and a lively scene at night.
Jacksonville Beach, the largest of the three within the city limits, features a 1,300-foot pier and a lively scene at night.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In 1956, when Elvis Presley made one of his first concert appearances here at the historic Florida Theater, the audience was composed of hundreds of screaming teenage girls and one juvenile court judge.

The girls swooned; the judge sat stone-faced. Not a fan of rock 'n' roll, he was there in an official capacity: to ensure that the King's swiveling hips did not exceed the legal speed limit.

Thankfully, Jacksonville has lightened up in the ensuing 55 years, as evidenced by its trendy shops; cutting-edge arts scene; and abundance of restaurants, high-end and quirky. Visitors have a range of experiences from which to choose — exploring pop-up art galleries in downtown storefronts through the city's Off the Grid initiative; creating their own art at Yes You Canvas!; or wandering through the moss-draped trees of Boone Park in the Avondale District before stopping for brunch at 'Town,' a leading proponent of the farm-to-table movement.

Geographically the largest city in the contiguous 48 states, Jacksonville is equally diverse in its landscape. It offers a tapestry of wetlands, swamps, estuaries, intracoastal waterways, the St. Johns River (unusual in that, like the Nile, it flows south to north), and, of course, beaches.

There are three beaches — Jacksonville, Neptune and Atlantic — within the city limits; a fourth, Ponte Vedra, is just across the line in neighboring Duval County, with each beach having its own distinctive personality.

The largest, Jacksonville Beach, is a mix of residential and retail, and is home to the majority of hotels, a lively nightlife scene and a 1,300-foot pier. Atlantic Beach, often called "Nantucket of the South" for its proliferation of shingled cottages, is quieter and is home to Mayport, a small shrimping village, and Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, offering campsites, lakes and hiking trails.

Neptune Beach is mostly residential, with cottages favored by young professionals and families, though it does boast the popular al fresco Lemon Bar at Seahorse Oceanfront Inn. Ponte Vedra is the poshest of the beaches, primarily the site of million-dollar mansions in gated communities. It has several public access points at Mickler's Beachfront Park and the 73,000-acre Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Cultural oasis

Jacksonville is much more than a beach destination, as seen in its commitment to culture. It's immediately obvious when you land at Jacksonville International Airport. The London Observer recently cited it as one of the four best airports in the world in which to be stranded, along with London's Heathrow, Amsterdam's Schipol and Korea's Seoul Airport.

If you are wondering why anyone would want to be stranded in any airport, you just need to make your way to the main terminal's Haskell Art Gallery, said to be the largest of its kind in the United States. To call the art unusual is an understatement. Figures of a man and woman carrying bags are the subjects of Gotta Go, etched on several-stories-tall glass windows at each end of the concourse; Silver Rain, a kinetic ceiling sculpture, moves with the slightest air current; and while you wait for your luggage, you can admire The River, a mosaic of 300,000 postage stamps in the shapes of six world rivers.

In Jacksonville, you don't have to choose between traditional and modern art on your museum-hopping. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is the largest fine arts museum in northeastern Florida, with more than 5,000 objects in the permanent collection, dating from 21 B.C. to the 21st century. The museum, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has a large antiquities collection, and galleries devoted to European and American masterpieces.

The museum's gardens, a floral paradise set against the backdrop of the St. Johns River, are divided into two primary gardens: English and Italian, both ablaze with color during every season.

If contemporary art is more your thing, Jacksonville has one of the largest modern art museums in the Southeast. In the historic Western Union Telegraph Building, which has been beautifully renovated, the Museum of Contemporary Art has a permanent collection of more than 800 works in a range of media.

If the saying, "life imitates art" is true, at MOCA it is equally true that food imitates art as the museum's restaurant, Café Nola, frequently uses the exhibitions as inspiration for its cuisine.

The dining is fine

When it comes to cuisine, Jacksonville offers the hungry traveler everything from four-star dining to fish camps.

In the former category, a good choice is Bistro Aix, a stylish restaurant presided over by chef Tom Gray, a two-time James Beard Award nominee. Gray describes his cooking as a "lusty mix of regional French and Mediterranean specialties, punctuated with flavors of California's wine country."

After putting on your good duds for dinner one night at Bistro Aix, slip into cut-offs and flip-flops (don't forget the mosquito repellent) for dinner the next night at Palm Valley Fish Camp. It is one of several fish camps tucked along the creeks and Intracoastal Waterway that flow through northeastern Florida. Relax on the dock with a cold beer (remember to slather on that repellent) before heading inside for Southern comfort food in an atmosphere of raucous good fun. Mayport shrimp and creamy grits are the specialty.

If you are looking for a completely different Jacksonville experience, how about spinning your own cotton candy, brewing your own beer or both?

You can spin cotton candy — or dip chocolates or make caramels — at Sweet Pete's, a confectionary in a 100-year-old Victorian home, and you can do it guilt-free because all the products at Sweet Pete's are devoid of artificial flavors and colors, and contain no gluten. If you think you're too old for this, you haven't seen the happy throngs who gather here to pull taffy and torture their wads of cotton candy into outlandish shapes.

If it's adult fun you're looking for, head to Engine 15 Brewery Co. on Jacksonville Beach, where for about $90, customers may craft their own beers. The price includes ingredients, instructions from the brewmaster and equipment necessary to brew 10 gallons (should you wish to bottle and label your beer, it will cost extra). If you'd rather imbibe than brew, Engine 15 offers 25 craft beers on tap and a howling good time.

As does Jacksonville itself, a place that has changed mightily since the days when Elvis had to monitor his hip action or face the ire of the city's justice system.